A few weeks ago, I wrote about the role of the artist in the artistic process. My friend Aaron had to contend with this topic when an essay prompt asked him to argue for one of two apparently antithetical positions. One theory holds that art is a product of one or more human minds and does not exist until someone imagines it and makes it a reality. The other holds that art is not fundamentally a human invention, and the artist should be understood as a conduit or transformer of art rather than an inventor.
I tried to resolve this dilemma by way of synthesis: that is, an acknowledgement that neither option is exhaustively or exclusively correct. For every line of argument or piece of evidence that supports either theory, there is another that undermines it. They are both half-true, and taken together they account for the sum of their parts. I suspect that a similar synthesis could be applied to many other contentious binaries (liberal vs. conservative, nature vs. culture), but that’s neither here nor there.
However, I realize my proposal is probably unsatisfying. I may seem to be dismissing the possibility that there are indeed significant differences in the explanatory power or fit-to-reality of these theories. I may seem to be preempting further discussion by claiming both are equally valid. So, I’d like to illustrate further what (I think) I meant when I said that my answer to Aaron’s either/or prompt would be “yes.”
A universal feature of art is the development, configuration and permutation of patterns. This also happens to be a universal feature of natural processes. Cymatics are a type of modal vibrational phenomena that can demonstrate some of the patterns appearing throughout nature and help us connect them to those found in art.
Cymatic patterns can be generated when a membrane or other surface covered in a thin layer of particles or liquid is vibrated at a certain frequency. The vibration displaces the particles or liquid into regions called “nodal lines of the vibration mode.” The visible pattern of these lines is a function of the vibratory frequency used as well as the shape of the membrane surface. Lower frequencies yield simpler patterns; as the frequency increases, the nodal lines become more numerous and intricate.
Vibration (energy) is inextricably linked to matter itself, as Einstein’s E=mc² equation famously showed. So we should not be too surprised to see just as matter exhibits pattern, the same is true for vibration. Vibration is also the basis of sound. Patterned sound vibrations are quite familiar to us, most obviously in the form of language but also in the form of music.
German photographer and philosopher Alexander Lauterwasser produced a work of cymatics entitled Water Sound Images. It shows how light reflects from the surface of water when the water is vibrated by a variety of sound sources ranging from overtone singing to a symphony. The results are gorgeous and visualize the patterning—and deviation therefrom—that makes music intelligible as well as interesting. Lauterwasser then compares his ‘water sound images’ to natural patterns such as the distribution of spots on a leopard or the arrangement of petals on a flower and finds striking similarities.
Imagine, if you will, a young artist. They have been studying their art form for a number of years and have developed some impressive skills. Imagine this person has just fallen in love. They are feeling exuberant and one night they get an impulse to create something for their beloved. As the artist sits down to write, or draw, or record or whatever, thoughts of this person race through their head. Impressions and emotional imprints erupt without warning from the artist’s unconscious. The sound of their lover’s laugh. The intensity of looking into each other’s eyes. The weather on the day they met. The artist may not even be conscious of these ineffable impressions, but they still get converted into artistic forms in a manner that ignores logic but just feels right.
The artist’s formal training may remove some of the impediments between their intent and the final product, but it isn’t providing the fuel for creation. Say the artist wrote a love song. When their song is finished, there will be a new artistic expression in the world unique to their personality and life experience. However, my hunch is if Alexander Lauterwasser made a “water sound image” of the song, it might look curiously similar to something you’ve already seen.
I am implying that the artist’s intuitive sense is sensitive to natural patterns. Certain aesthetic choices feel right because they resonate with a vibratory pattern, whether it is a basic cymatic frequency or an unimaginably complex biological pattern such as that of a human. Regardless of their complexity, patterns are arrangements of vibrations.
For some reason, some basic patterns have been instantiated in nature since the beginning of time. Since then they have been conserved, but endlessly diversified and complexified in their manifestations. When an artist is inspired, I believe they tap into the reservoir of patterns and the “patterning ability” of nature via their unconscious mind. Their own conscious mind and rational capacity is fueled and guided by this impersonal source, even though individual will is a necessary ingredient. Art that reflects natural patterns just makes sense to us.
This is why I said both of the aforementioned theories are indeed true…and false. Mankind creates its own art, but it draws from a creative potential inherent in nature that has been organizing vibration into patterns from the get-go. We each have the opportunity to become conscious participants in this universal patterning process and create something nobody else ever could.